Danceletter 2

Back to school

Part of a Tradition

One thing I like about writing a newsletter, so far, is that it forces me to pause and ask: What have I even been doing? Life moves pretty quickly, and I fall into spells of just forging ahead without reflecting. These past two weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for my spring course, Dance in New York City, and getting into the swing of a new semester. This is almost too cute to share, but I actually took this course roughly 14 years ago as a freshman at Barnard, and it’s one reason I’m doing what I do now.

Do you ever remember something you said during a panel discussion and feel a pang of regret, even shame? I do. And I had one such flashback, to 2015, while updating my syllabus the other day. It was a panel on dance criticism at Gibney, during which I made a number of embarrassing remarks, but the one that came rushing back to me recently had to do with artistic lineages. I said something like: “Am I part of a lineage as a dance critic? I don’t really feel like I’m part of a tradition.”

Hmmm. What was I thinking? I must have been forgetting about all the critics and scholars whose work I had studied, admired, aspired to emulate, some of whom had been my teachers and mentors (and some of whom were sitting right there on that panel). As I perused, in syllabus-prep mode, the dance writings of Sally Banes, Thomas F. DeFrantz, Edwin Denby, Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Lynn Garafola, Jill Johnston, Deborah Jowitt, Claudia La Rocco, Wendy Perron, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, and many others, I considered just how absurd it was to have proposed that somehow I was out there on my own, lineage-less. At the very least, I was (and am) part of a tradition of being drawn, against the odds, to writing about dance.

“People interested in dancing as a form of art complain that our dance criticism is poor,” Denby wrote in 1949. “Poor it is but not poor in relation to its pay.” That was a solid 70 years ago. This week SF MoMA’s Open Space published an engrossing conversation between the critics Siddhartha Mitter and Carolina A. Miranda, largely about the precarious state of arts journalism. It left me thinking that while we often talk about scarcity in this field, it’s as important to acknowledge (without deluding ourselves) what we do have. And that includes other people — the people we talk to and read and envy and debate, the people we turn to for guidance and inspiration.

Surrounding yourself with books, as you figure out what to teach, is a good way to remind yourself: you are part of a lineage, even if that part is tiny, and you are passing something down. Inside of the regret I felt, over something I said four years ago, was a lot of gratitude and a wish to express it: for the writers whose work informs my own, for their laying of foundations and continued inquiry, for sticking it out in a field that offers few material rewards. It’s not easy to keep going, and has it ever been?

Jill Johnston Coda

Speaking of critics and scholars and inspirations, Clare Croft, of the University of Michigan, gave a rather magical talk on Jill Johnston at “Judson Dance Theater: A Collective Speculation” at MoMA PS1 on Sunday. (I posted a video of the ending here, and while you’re there, check out Gus Solomons jr’s dance historical puppetry, from the same afternoon.) I learned that the rebellious Johnston was known for hanging from ceiling pipes at parties, which is not surprising but adds a nice new dash of color to my mental image of her. Clare brought up her subject’s general disdain for panel discussions, and I was reminded of what Johnston wrote in The Village Voice (RIP) on June 6, 1968: “I’m still mystified by the function of a panel discussion. Perhaps it’s just another community get-together.”

From the Internet

Time for some dance and dance-adjacent findings from the virtual space:

“Everybody Knows”: I could write a lot about how this brilliant essay by Elizabeth Schambelan, in n+1, relates (in my opinion) to Alexandra Waterbury’s lawsuit against New York City Ballet, three of its male dancers, and one of its male donors. And maybe I will, but not now. In the meantime, just read it before it slips back behind the paywall.

Helga: I was late, like two years late, to this podcast hosted by the performer Helga Davis. But I am so glad I got there. I started listening this past fall when I was going through kind of a dark time, emotionally, and it actually helped lift me out of that phase. Each episode is a long conversation with an artist or writer or musician or curator and dives deep into big life questions. They’re all really good, but if you have time for only a few, I recommend Hilton Als, Thelma Golden, and Solange.

Shed Reading List: The enormous multimillion-dollar flexible performing arts space known as The Shed, on Manhattan’s far west side, has announced an opening date of April 5. Brace (and inform) yourself with these responses to last spring’s “Prelude to the Shed” by Claire Bishop, Ben Davis, and Helen Shaw.


Here’s what I’ve been up to writing-wise:

An interview with Louis Mofsie, 82-year-old director of the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, whose performances continue Feb. 1-3 at Theater for the New City.

A review of Jen Rosenblit’s I’m gonna need another one at the Chocolate Factory.

Shows (etc.) to See

A few things I’m looking forward to in the near future:

Urban Bush Women: Hair and Other Stories, Jan. 31-Feb. 9 at BRIC

“New Combinations” at New York City Ballet: Feat. the return of Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway and a new Justin Peck / Sufjan Stevens collab, Jan. 31 and Feb. 3, 9 and 10.

Revolutionary New Moon in Aquarius: With Ambika Raina, Katrina Reid, and lily bo shapiro, curated by Benedict Nguyen, Feb. 2 at Issue Project Room.

Vicky Shick and Dancers: Next to the Sink, Feb. 7-9 at Danspace Project.


Till next time,